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Sell or Die: The Hard Truth About Sales & Startup Founders

Few founders go into business with a natural talent or ability for sales.

Most founders hate the idea of sales--it feels foreign and disingenuous at best.

But, if you’re a founder, you can’t let that hold you back.. You don’t have to “be a salesperson” to close. And you really don’t have any options.

You’re a startup--you’re fledgling. You may have an amazing product or technology, but if you can’t convince someone to give you money for it, then you’ll go down history as another failed company that couldn’t get traction.

In other words: You sell or you die.

This is the reality for most startups and startup founders.

top 20 reasons startups fail

According to CBInsights, the top two reasons startups fail both relate to sales and the ability to sell. Their data shows that 42% of startups fail because they lack a market for their product or service. Twenty-nine percent just run out of cash.

It may seem like lack of product-market fit isn’t about sales--but it is.

One of the core functions of the early sales process is understanding the buyer and their needs. It’s about getting critical feedback from the people you are asking to give you money. Of course, ideally, you would work to validate an idea before bringing it to market. But, that’s all theoretical until you start asking people to pay you for what you’ve built.

This is one of the reasons why it’s so critical for founders to take on the early sales process, to hear first-hand how the market is responding to what’s being sold.

You Can’t Afford a Salesperson (And You Don’t Want One Anyway)

Let’s be honest: You can’t afford a salesperson.

Many founders try to figure out a way to hire sales too early. They search for some mythical unicorn, “commission-only” sales person who is going to bust their ass for $0 in hopes of getting a fat check later on down the line.

Unfortunately, if you are paying $0 salary, you can expect about $0 worth of work.

No one works for free unless they have passion and skin in the game. Guess who has both? The founder.

This is one of the reasons why it’s so critical for founders to do early-stage sales. They’re the only ones who have the right mix of motivation, passion, and knowledge to talk about what the company does and sell it convincingly.

But, even more importantly, this early sales process is where startups glean critical buyer feedback and insight. It’s where you learn the market.

So, even if you could afford to hire a salesperson right out of the gate, you wouldn’t want to.

But, even more importantly, this early sales process is where startups glean critical buyer feedback and insight. It’s where you learn the market.

You’d be missing out on all of the tactical, real-world, first-person feedback that you get from knocking on doors and making sales calls. When you cut through all the fluff and the fear of rejection--sales is the best opportunity for market research.

Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier for founders to get into sales. It still seems like treacherous territory that you’re wildly unqualified to enter. This requires a shift in thinking.

Rather than imagining that every sales discussion is some high-pressure, cut-throat interaction, think of it instead as just having a conversation. You’re talking, you’re learning, and, hopefully, you’re helping.

The secret is that sales isn’t that difficult if you do it the right way.

You’ve Got to Learn How to Sell (Founder’s Crash Course)

Sales is intimidating. But you can learn it.

It doesn’t have to be scary and you don’t have to be pushy or smarmy. You just need to talk to potential buyers, understand what they need, and help them evaluate if your product/service can be provide a solution.

One of the major misconceptions about sales is that it’s the classic used-car salesman pitch, full of flash, fast talking, and empty promises. It’s about tricking people into buying stuff they don’t want, don’t need, or can’t afford.

But this couldn’t be further from reality.

As a growing startup, the last thing you want to deal with is customers who feel they were duped or that the product under-delivered for them.

You want raging fans.

The way to accomplish this is through consultative selling, where you, as a founder, act in good faith to learn the needs of the business and then help them decide (in an objective way) whether what you’re selling will help them meet your goals.

Even this version of selling may seem daunting to some, but it really boils down to just a few things.

1. Belief in what you’re selling

One of the most critical components of any sales discussion--and what often makes founders so great at selling--is an authentic and unshakeable belief in the value of what they’re selling.

No one, no matter how experienced in sales, enjoys selling a product or service they don’t believe in.

Not only is there the cognitive dissonance of the interaction, but the entire process of selling becomes muddy and difficult. If you don’t have a clear understanding and belief in what problems you can solve for someone, then selling them a solution will be difficult.

Take pride in knowing that you are selling something you truly believe in and be slow to deviate from the core solution that you know it can provide.

2. Understanding your customer’s needs

We often hear the term “sales pitch” and think of an awkward interaction where you ramble for 20 minutes about what makes your product or service so great. Then, you sit awkwardly waiting for a response. (Hopefully they say yes!)

But this doesn’t have to be your sales process.

Rather than “pitching” your solution, you should begin by understanding the needs of the person you’re talking to. Ask them about their business, learn about their pain points, and then help them decide if you can provide an answer.

You know how in movies, people interviewing for a sales job are always asked to sell the interviewer a pen?

If you’re like most people, the thought of having to do that--on the spot--makes your skin crawl. What are you supposed to sell them on? The ink? The grip? The color?

But, the reason this seems so terrifying is because you are focused on what you’re selling rather than the needs of the customer. Instead, consider if you were asked to do this and you began by asking the interviewer about the rest of the interview.

Will they need to take notes about the conversation?

Will those notes be incredibly important later when they are reviewing applications?

Well, then, of course, they really need a pen to be able to take those notes. Now you have understood their needs and created a clear case for why they want to buy the pen you’re selling.

Congratulations, you’ve just established a need.

3. Assessing your solution

Once you have an understanding of the needs of the customer, then you need to assess whether your solution is a viable option for them.

This should be fairly straightforward.

Can your product or service meet the needs that they outlined? Are there any other solutions that could also be viable? And, if so, what would set your solution apart from competitors?

Here’s where, as a founder, having intimate knowledge of the product is a huge benefit. You can better assess whether the specific features or aspects align with the customer’s needs. You’ve likely studied the market and understand the competitors.

If you find that your solution isn’t a good fit, there’s no shame in saying so.

While it may be hard to walk away from revenue, early-stage sales is a critical phase and finding the right fit is much more important than closing every possible deal.

Can you solve their problems? Then tell them so. If not, tell them that too.

4. Be persistent (but not annoying)

One of the hard truths about pretty much every sales process is that timing and luck play a huge role in your success.

You may have a great conversation with a potential buyer and feel like a deal is all but closed, only to then find that they stop returning your emails and go silent for weeks. Many times, this is a matter of some internal discussion--sign-off, budget, buy-in, etc--or it could just be a matter of priorities.

As a founder who is wearing a million other hats, this can be disheartening and frustrating.

But don’t lose focus.

Keep track of your pipeline and communications closely, send regular follow-ups, and try to stay engaged with each prospect.

Keep track of your pipeline and communications closely, send regular follow-ups, and try to stay engaged with each prospect.

Propeller helps busy founders and sales teams take control of the sales process--from outreach to close. So there are never any gaps, dropped balls, or missed opportunities.

If you’re crazy busy but know you need to sell (hint: you do), try Propeller for free.

No matter what way you slice it, sales are absolutely critical for startups. And, in almost every case, startup founders must learn to sell in order to get off the ground.

Don’t let fear of rejection or lack of experience be the death of your startup. Dive into the sales process headfirst, make some mistakes, and learn as you go.

Now, go close.

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